Monday, August 03, 2009

Joel & Amy Across America, Part 6

Day 3:

Salem Witch Trials Monument & The Burying Point – Salem, Massachusetts is only about a thirty-minute drive north of Boston, so Amy and I made arrangements to spend some time out there to engrain ourselves in the local witch fare. Today, Salem has become something of a haven for Wiccans, but our interest in visiting was, like everything else on our trip, purely historical.

The American religious landscape in 1692 was extremely Puritan, meaning most people were very strict when it came to the Bible. Salem was no exception, and beyond their stringent adherence to the Bible’s bylines, they also believed in predestination—the idea that God has one’s entire life all planned out and everything happens for a very specific reason. If someone were to find buried treasure in their backyard, it was because God felt the need to reward them. If someone’s child got very sick and died, it was God’s punishment for some wrong that person had committed. No matter what happened in a person’s life, it was all for a reason.

A combination of these things, added to the boredom of Salem’s young girls and some complicated political dishevelment, led to some men and women being accused of witchcraft in Salem and the surrounding areas in 1692. The girls doing the accusing would fake seizures in court and point fingers at their “tormentors.” Eventually these girls’ parents would use the whole ordeal as an excuse to accuse people they didn’t like of witchcraft, and from there the whole thing dominoed completely out of control. By the time it was all said and done, twenty completely innocent people had been executed as witches.

Our first stop in Salem was the memorial constructed for those twenty men and women that had been wrongly killed. None of these people are actually buried there, but the names run around the little stone garden to remember the people that died. Anybody who had to read “The Crucible” in high school will recognize names like John Proctor, Sarah Good, Giles Corey, and Rebecca Nurse. Many of the others I hadn’t heard of previously, but it was cool to be there after having taught the book to my students.

The trials came to an abrupt close when the wife of a higher-up in the province was accused. Knowing it was all ridiculous, this man called an end to the trials and released the 100+ people who were being detained at the time as potential witches. The girls weren’t punished, nor was anyone else, because to admit the whole thing was a sham was to admit that their religion was a sham, and nothing was more important to early Americans than religion.

Click HERE for More Pictures!

Something was accomplished in the wake of all this, however. Because of these trials, spectral evidence (having to do with spirits and ghosts and all that) was outlawed in future hearings. No longer could someone say, “I’m being possessed by spirits unleashed onto me by so-and-so” and have that count as credible evidence towards convicting someone. It’s just a shame that 20 people had to die for so obvious a conclusion.

The Salem Witch Trials Memorial is right next to the city’s oldest cemetery, where Colonel John Hathorne, the head judge from the trials, is buried. Also interred there is Richard More, one of the original Pilgrims that came over on the Mayflower. So many of the stones in this small graveyard are dated in the 1600s, which, like the other cemeteries we’d already visited on this trip, didn’t fail to impress us. The oldest I think I’ve ever seen here in Illinois was 18-hundred-something-or-other. We’ve got a lot of great history in this state what with Abraham Lincoln and Chicago and all that, but sometimes it just can’t hold a candle to the East Coast, where almost everything is older than the dirt it stands on.

Witch Dungeon Museum – Salem is, in a lot of ways, just a giant tourist trap trying to capitalize on its fascinating history by appealing to those in search of anything tied to the witch trials. As a result there are quite a few different attractions in town with the words “Salem,” “Witch,” and “Museum” tied into their storefronts in some order or another. Most of these are some combination of wax sculptures and educational videos, and few, if any, of them have much by way of original artifacts from that era.

As tourists, however, Amy and I wanted to visit at least one of these kitschy little traps and so we chose the Witch Dungeon for the primary reason that they do an award-winning reenactment of Ann Putnam’s trial. You have a seat in a giant auditorium, watch the fifteen minute show, then get a brief tour of “The Dungeon.”

Amy and I must have looked like campers because we ended up on the front stoop of this place about five minutes before it actually opened. We were the only ones in attendance for the first show, and we sort of got the impression that the actresses weren’t accustomed to starting right at 10:00. My guess is that most tourists didn’t wander in until the 10:30 or 11:00 show. We literally saw one actress walk in after us in street clothes, then show up on stage in full 1692 regalia about 120 seconds later to play her part in the performance.

In all honesty, it was pretty good. All three actresses were more than solid, and considering it was just Amy and I in this huge auditorium they put on the show as if they were doing a Broadway opener or something. Plenty of bang for our buck in that regard, but it was the dungeon that we found to be particularly fetching.

Just like today, when someone was accused of a crime back in the seventeenth century, they’d be arrested and put into holding until a trial could be arranged. The jail in which these people were held was like a dank, moldy basement meant to accommodate no more than fifty people, but by the end of the trials up twice that many were living in that one room. There were no restrooms here, obviously, so people used the bathroom right where they were, and after a hard rain the entire room could flood up their knees. Such conditions were horrible, made all the worse considering those jailed there were actually innocent.

The cell in the basement of the Witch Dungeon Museum is not the original, but was built to the exact specifications of the original, which was discovered in the mid-1900s during preparation for a new building site. There was no real historical society back then so the dungeon was torn down completely, though a few relics were salvaged, including an original beam which was on display in the room we currently were viewing.

In terms of what was available to us there to get a sense of Salem’s history, this was very easily the best option. The Salem Witch Museum, a beautiful old converted church a short walk away, would have been our next stop were we not being asked to pay $8 a piece to watch a half-hour video on the history of trials. This place looked so cool from the outside and ended up being ever-so-lame that we ended up heading back for Boston around lunchtime. It’s a fun place to spend the morning for anyone looking to try a day away from the city, but to spend more than a few hours there would’ve been overkill. Very cool experience, but just a little too far removed from history to be as meaningful as some of the other things we’d seen thus far, and would see in the days to come.

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